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                               For Marta, the tsadek swallowed by the python


On Tigray, Gadl and Gadli

By Walata Tsion


A quick glance at the monastic holdings of a monastery in Tigray reveals something startling: much of the collection is comprised of Gadl, the biography of saints and their epic spiritual battles and exploits.  It is a startling revelation when we compare it with holdings in Gojam or Gondar or Shewa, the traditional center of power after Aksum. Gojam is swamped with precious manuscripts of Dagwa (church chants), Aquaqam, Mahlet, Zema, Mewasit; Gondar, renown for its illuminated manuscripts, its beautiful majestic script; Shewa, as epicenter of power has just about everything reflecting of the majesty and opulence of Ethiopian kings: paintings, Patristic theology, Andemta, and volumes of Degwa.

“Forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten,” wrote 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon in his description of “Aethiopians” after the fall of Aksum. A thousand years of silence followed. King Kaleb’s exploits of Aksum, marching to the Arabian Penninsula with 100,000 men, across the sea, with an army of elephants seemed truly like a distant past.  The old capital Aksum was abandoned and he lusher greenery of Shewa became the new center.  Aksum relegated to memory and imagination became politically peripheral, separated from the center by more than one thousand kilometers of rugged and ungovernable terrain.  Aksum, trapped by its geography and isolated from central polity looked inward:  the era of the Gadl was born.

While the cantors in Gojam excelled in the arts of chanting and liturgy and while Gondar reveled in gold rimmed calligraphy and manuscript illumination, Aksum and much of Tigray, removed from the center, embraced monasticism in earnest.  The rugged and inhospitable terrain, the hard to tame land, the rocky outposts served as natural supports for the contemplative life.  The ephemeralness of life-to be born only to die, to till the land for little fruits, vulnerability, unpredictability, the unreliable nature of the compounded world, gave ample energy for contemplation and renunciation. The bare monastic life, its simplicity and its bareness were embraced in earnest.  Misfortunes and unfavorable conditions and circumstances were transformed into supports for the life of the renunciant. Poverty became wealth. The life of the renunciant became the deep aspiration of those within the cultural radius of Aksum.  Tigray became a monastic culture.

And so the literature of the Gadl proliferated in Tigray. The Gadl is the story of a common person who renounces the world to begin an inner struggle against everything that the bewitching world relies on to propagate itself: lying, stealing, killing, an obsession with the self and everything that the obsession gives birth to: the need to dominate others,  the need for power.  By recognizing the ephemeral for what it is, the common person breaks through this illusion and comes closer to a more sober truth: the impermanence of life and the futility of human activity.   In so doing, he treads the path of the tsadek, the holy man, who abandons the ephemeral and seeks rest in an unchanging, undeceiving, uncompounded reality.

The rigors of the life of the tsadek are all pervasive in the Tigrayan mental and physical landscape. Perhaps then this explains why fasting is continuous in the city of Aksum; food is sparingly eaten even during non-fasting days. An entire city turned monastic. Perhaps this also explains the resolutely stubborn but generally kind character of the Tigrayan; after all the tsadek is resolute in his path but his ultimate goal is to experience the love of God through the love of his brethren. Perhaps this explains also why the Dekika Estifanos refused to bow down to their earthly king, Zara Yacob, for the king in spite of his majesty is also ephemeral and passing; a tsadek's main struggle is after all against forms of  idolatry in all its crude and subtle forms. Maybe then this also explains the actions of Emperor Yohannes IV, who instead of defending Massawa, against the advice of his own general Ras Alula, went to defend Gondar, to defend the persecution of his brethren. To give up Massawa for un-strategic Gondar...is this not the mark of a  tsadek? Could this also explain the reason why Abuna Ewostatewos refused to stop the veneration of the Saturday Sabbath, for the consecration of time is a higher truth than the consecration of space and matter. For maintaining this position, Abuna Ewostatewos brought upon himself and his followers the wrath of the king, Zara Yacob.  It was a clash of sensibilities. Shewa's empire building ambitions required that value be placed on matter, on land, and on the materially tangible. Tigray had long abandoned that ideal. And even when central power suddenly shifted north, as did under Yohannes IV, the monastic tsadek ideal continued to dominate the narrative.  It was only when the TPLF came to power, with its capital in imperial Shewa, that the tsadek ideal was totally abandoned,  a radical departure from Tigray's deepest orientation. The source of all our woes was identified to be none other than poverty!  Poverty-our long time friend-, renunciation-our long time ally- were now considered stains to be eliminated and fought against by all means possible.

As Tigray remained entrenched in its peripheral-ness, its inner life flourished. Forgotten by the Empire, it had carved a new identity in prayer, contemplation, righteousness, wisdom. Why be enchanted with the world when a mine of gold lies within? But this new identity went against every human instinct to latch on to the physical world despite its ephemeralness, to cling to comfort, to wealth, to more and more.  It required a persistent battle, a constant inner vigilance, an awareness of shame and “newri”.  It required a spiritual warrior. It is for this reason that when in 1984, during the great Tigray Famine, the Swiss nurse working out of Quiha, Claire Bertschinger with very  limited supplies had to choose between who would get to eat and who would not, who would live and who would die...something astonishing happened. As a thin cord separated those who would get rations and those destined to die from hunger; the living hunkered down in shame, "newri" unable to eat while others are dying; the dying walked away from the feeding stations, empty handed, so the living could eat without shame, "newri". Not a single protest. Not a single complaint. No riots. Complete willful order, without the use of a single police to enforce order. A society restrained by "newri" and "fariha egziabher". Most societies have an abundance of outer order but little in the way of an internal order.  The outer order is enforced by promulgated laws and legislation and lethal force when needed. Societies like Tigray are the outliners, whereby the outer order of the society is purely maintained because of an internal order that pulsates outwards to the society. 

The sensibilities of the tsadek and the Gadl runs in the veins of today’s Tigray fighters.  How else can one explain the readiness to sacrifice one’s life for a higher good over and over so many times, except that it is precisely what the tsadek does in sacrificing his life to God in every deed and act of each single day?  How else can one explain the unwillingness to kill one’s captured enemy in battle except that it is the emulation of the Gadl life, the tsadik who strives for absolute freedom  from his own vices of anger and greed and revenge?  How can one explain the unwillingness to bow down to a central king or ruler..except to understand it in the context of a culture deeply repulsed by all the echelons of power and the degradation it brings to the human soul?  An ancient story runs in the veins of every Tigrayan and  a Tegadalay, resuscitates from deep inside his memory, the battles of the tsadek from which he himself is carved.

In the Gadl literature, the battle is always a one way lane.  There is no turning back  on the road to becoming a Tsadek. A monk is forever a monk and giving up his vows is unthinkable. A tsadek may not necessarily reach his final destination (absolute vanquish of the enemy within: greed, anger, jealousy), and may choose often to die in battle than reverse course.  For a tsadek, there is no turning back; there is after all nothing to turn back to that is reliable in the compounded world, which is created and which disintegrates by mere causes and conditions. By becoming a warrior, a tsadek gives up his parents, his home, his community and assumes a new name, a new communitas,  having set fire to the bridge that leads to his former identity. The loyalty to the path is the seed from which all accomplishments of the saint are born. It is this instinct, still beating faintly that was reverberating in the heart of Seyoum Mesfin who chose to meet his death, alone.  Seyoum Mesfin with just a few books and a pen, like a hermit monk, was found in rural Tigray, where he faced his death, alone. Not to give in to the instinct to flee, like many others have done, when one could, like many have done..is this not truly the behavior of a tsadek? 

So deep and profound is the cultus of the Gadl in Tigray that  even without awareness, the armed struggle of TPLF,  was colored by the actions of the Tsadek.  The Tsadek is a martyr, and so when the Tegadalay falls in battle, he is a Sewu’. The word sewu’ is from the Geez root SW’, from which we also get words such as maswa’it (offering, sacrifice).  It is always connected with a temple offering, an offering to God. The use of the word sewu’, the passive participle of the verb Sewu’,  in reference to a tegadaly who falls in battle, is telling. The more common word for death mota is avoided when referring to the death of a tegadalay. In effect,  the tegadaly is a martyr, one who offers his life specifically in a ritual context. While Christian martyrs traditionally were martyred for upholding their faith, today the tegadaly taps into the long narrative of martyrdom, where such a death has religious undertones and is associated with the highest offering possible: one’s life. The sewu’ is a martyr which the TPLF armed struggle resuscitated from the Tigrayan ethos and dressed it in nationalist fervor. 

In today's war in Tigray, three kinds of fighters are engaged.  There are Imperial Amhara fighters who march with the motivation of conquering land, like the kings of Shewa.  There are the children of  Askari Eritreanism, mercenaries, whose motivation is clouded by an inner obscuration of loyalties,  and so are perfect vehicles of executing orders from above, while benefitting from some monetary compensation.  And there is the tegadalay of Tigray in whose veins runs the story of the tsadek. Through the Gadl, Tigray was built over and over many times, as in the past so in the future, like an impossible story.